When Adam Nicholson was eight, he was hiking with his Uncle Ron in the Anza-Borrego Desert and they encountered a rabid coyote drooling from the mouth. Adam was terrified and pissed his pants. The coyote made a mad dash after Adam, being the smaller of the two humans, and Uncle Ron intercepted the animal, using his two large hands to clutch and choke the neck. Uncle Ron, with ease, ripped out the coyote’s esophagus, then killing it with a blow to the chest, ribs breaking, sharp ends of bone penetrating the heart. Uncle Ron was covered in blood and grinning with a strange and frightening pleasure from the glory of the kill. “Little trick they taught me in ‘Nam, kid,” he said; “when the VC would send trained attack dogs at us.” Uncle Ron had served two tours of duty in Vietnam as a Special Ops Marine.
Adam was now eleven and he accompanied his Uncle Ron for another kill. Adam’s father, Bill, came along. Uncle Ron intended to murder the bartender at the Palms at Indian Head, a resort hotel in Borrego Springs, California. This bartender, so the story went, had forced Uncle Ron’s daughter, Adam’s cousin Mary, to have sex. Wendy was sixteen and a virgin; the bartender was thirty-five and was known to sleep with many women, whether they wanted to or not, it was all the same to the guy.
“I still say we go to the Sheriff,” Adam’s father said.
“And do what? He said/she said. Trial, legal technicalities. When your daughter is raped, you take vengeance by your own hand,” Uncle Ron said.
“How about maiming him instead of killing him?”
“No. He’s a dead man. What is it, Bill? Having second thoughts on backing me up?”
“No, we’ll do this, you’re my brother and my niece was violated,” Adam’s father said. “Just having reservations about bringing my son.”
“He has to see this; he has to see what men do.” Uncle Ron said to Adam, “Family sticks together, kid; we protect each other and we avenge one another when an injustice is committed against our flesh and blood.”
The sun was high in the sky and the wind was blowing dust around. Far away, Adam could see rain clouds heading toward the desert.
The two men and one boy walked into the hotel. There was no one around, as if people had cleared out, knowing that a human storm was coming. Uncle Ron led the way into the bar.
“Where are you?” Uncle Ron said loudly. “I know it’s time for your shift; I know you’re working.”
There was no bartender behind the counter. Uncle Ron reached behind the counter and grabbed three beers, handing one to Bill and one to Adam. The beer was cold in Adam’s hand.
“He’s eleven,” Adam’s father said.
“We were drinking when we were eight,” Uncle Ron said.
Uncle Ron and Adam’s father slugged down their beers in one gulp. Adam sipped at his; he had only tried beer once, sneaking a can from the cooler.
They went around the counter and into a back area where cases of beer and alcohol were kept and lead to the kitchen. There were no cooks, no employees of any kind.
“Shit,” said Adam’s father.
A man’s body lay on the floor. He was tall and had shaggy blonde hair and his body was surrounded by blood. A chunk of the man’s head was separated from the man, and there was a pistol on the floor near the man’s right hand.
“Goddammit all,” said Uncle Ron. He kicked a case of beer with his steel-toed boot.
Later, outside, Adam and his father watched the coroner remove the body, placing it in a long shiny black bag. Uncle Ron gave a statement to the Sheriff.
“Why is Uncle Ron so mad?” Adam asked his father.
“Because he didn’t get a chance to take out revenge on the bartender fellow.”
“Why did the bartender shoot himself?”
“He knew what was coming, and I guess he felt suicide was better than what your uncle had in mind.”
“What? Why?” Adam was confused.
His father said, “Your uncle would have slowly tortured the guy for hours, maybe days, making sure he experienced a thousand times more pain than your cousin did.”
“Is that what Wendy wanted?”
“It’s what your uncle wanted, and when your uncle wants something, there’s no getting in his way. In the afterlife, your uncle will probably torment the bartender fellow’s soul.”
“The bartender was a coward,” Adam said.
“A coward in many ways,” his father said. “Raping a helpless girl, getting her drunk like that, and then killing himself to escape justice for his crime. He’s in Hell now, Adam. Heaven doesn’t let souls like that beyond the pearly gates.”
“If Uncle Ron went after him in the afterlife, then Uncle Ron will also be in Hell.”
“Your Uncle Ron has been destined for Hell since he was your age.”
“Let’s not talk about Heaven and Hell, all right, Adam? Let’s talk about suicide. Know that real men never kill themselves. Real men face their mistakes and failures, just as they face joy and success.”
Adam didn’t want Uncle Ron to go to Hell and wondered if there was a way to save Uncle Ron’s immortal soul.
Uncle Ron was done talking to the Sheriff. He walked over to Adam and his father and said, “Let’s go get real drunk.”
It was a day of many firsts for Adam: he saw his first dead body, he saw his first splattered brains, and he experienced his first wild drunk and horrible hangover.